Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - The Thames Watermen

[... back to menu for this book]




It would very much astonish the "jolly young waterman, who at Blackfriars Bridge used to ply, were it possible for him in these present days to revisit the scenes of his aquatic delights. It is not recorded whether the renowned oarsman in question lived to become a jolly old waterman, and it would be interesting to learn whether to the last he retained serenity of mind enabling him to "row along thinking of nothing at all." It may have been that ere he cast off for his final voyage - above bridge let us hope - the stream he knew so well how to feather an oar in had already begun to grow troubled and turbid with the whirl and swell of steamboat paddles, and that his later days were somewhat saddened in consequence. But even if unfortunately it were so, the going to the bad was only then at the beginning.
    It is all over now, inexorably and hopelessly, with those piping times of Thames prosperity when, provided a waterman studied neatness of attire and dexterity of action, he need never be in want of a fare. As regards rowing steadily, the modern poor fellow finds so little to make him frolicsome, that there is but little to find fault with on that account; while, as for his "looking so neat," it would be a mere mockery and a waste of patience for him to trouble himself at all about it. Where is the inducement? Why should our waterman be particular as regards the polish of his "pumps," as his natty tie shoes were called, or the spotlessness of his white ducks, or the cut of his dark blue jacket ? It was all very well when he had an opportunity of "winning each heart and delighting each eye," but why should he make himself spruce for no other gain than to be chaffed by ballast heavers and lightermen?
    Gay City ladies have for this half a century past ceased to in-[-40-]quire after "first oars," and since the steamboats and the railroad have fixed the fare to Greenwich at fourpence the Thames waterman has lost the custom of the commonality as well. And the worst of it is, he seems utterly incapable of accommodating himself to circumstances or of making the best of things. Take any of the "stairs" affected by his tribe on either shore above London Bridge, and there will be found ten or a dozen drooping listlessly on the ancient seat or lolling against the rails, or pottering amongst the boats below with a stunned and bewildered air, as though the crushing blow steamboats dealt them had fallen but a month or two ago, and they as yet had no time to recover from it and look about them. Their boats are unpainted and shabby, and are mended and botched in raw and unsightly patches, as though the owners expected to be swept away altogether very shortly, and it didn't matter.
    As for the dress of the men themselves, in the majority of cases there is nothing in it to denote them watermen - not even a check shirt, a black silk neckerchief tied in a sailor's knot, or a round glazed hat. They might from their appearance be out-of-work carmen or hard-up warehouse porters. There would seem to be something in the nature of salt water that has an improving effect on a man's regard for personal appearance. There is an indescribable smartness about a sea sailor under the most unfavourable conditions. His affairs may be far from prosperous, but he has ever a cheerful look forward for a turn of the tide of bad luck, and a free and flowing ready-for-action bearing that is unmistakable. But, judging from what one sees, river water is not so well adapted for preserving British pluck and perseverance.
    The Thames waterman has been fated to endure a protracted spell of adversity; but it scarcely follows that he should have lost all faith and all pride in the trade he follows. I discovered one grey- headed sculler in his boat afloat off some landing stairs near Shadwell actually cobbling an old boot with a patch of leather and waxend, and that without disguise, and in full view of the river-side public. The jolly young waterman of song would rather have gone barefoot than so degraded his calling. It got him a fare, however, for feeling curious to learn something of the sort of man he was, I hailed him from the stairs, on which, after staring about him incredulously, he slipped on his boot with the patch hanging to it and took me on board.
    "That is not the trade you were apprenticed to, my friend," I remarked, glancing at his unfinished cobbling.
    "It would have been a confounded sight better for me if it had been," he growled in return. "I'd rather been a sweep or a scavenger, or even a undertaker - blow me if I would'nt. When I say I'd rather I mean it would have paid better."
    "You would have earned more money, your mean?"
    "I couldn't well earn less, to call it earnings at all. Why, I'll you, sir. I was down here this morning at half-past seven, and now it's close on three, and I've took one and fivepence, and if I take another shilling today I shall think myself lucky."
    "And would that be about the average of your earnings?"
    "More than the average, sir. I work seven days a week - least-[-41-]ways I'm ready at call for work- and all the year round it isn't fourteen shillings. It aint more than a shilling a day in the winter time sometimes, and there's scores of us up and down here who could tell you they don't do better. I'm as well off at my age as most of 'em, and had as much speerience. I've been on the river eight-and- thirty years, sir, and am just over sixty, and have got two boys prenticed on the river now."
    "But since you found a waterman's business has become such a bad one, was it judicious to put your sons to it?"
    "I've been told that afore," returned the waterman, resentfully, "and by them as don't know no more about it than you do, if you'll excuse me. I didn't put my boys to it, they took to it nat'ral. It's the same with all watermen's boys, and it's that which keeps the breed up, wus luck. Watermen in general live close by the stairs they ply at, and it's there the young uns come up to play. They follows the father - the boys do, I mean - as nat'rally as young ducks follow the old un, and there they are among the boats as soon a'most as they are able to climb into one. They grow up to it; and nobody looks to nothing else but that when they're old enough they must be prenticed to it. They won't take to nothing else, and it's better than nothing. Leastways, it often leads to what's better than nothing. They get on to lighters and barges, or they get known amongst the big wharfingers and get a berth that way, or more often than all, they get sick of the fresh water when they grew young men and find they can't earn enough money, and they take to the salt and go aboard ship. A whole lot of 'em get drafted off in that way, or there'd be such a precious lot of us on the river we should be eatin' each other alive. How do I make a livin'? Ferrying mostly. It would pay pretty well if there was enough of it, and there wasn't so many of us, but, when there's half a dozen or more and you take your turn, it's slow work, and if a man likes a half-pint of beer - and in the winter time how is he to wait out in the weather ?-the ha'pence are spent as fast as as ever earned. Did I ever try ferrying above bridge? I never did, but I know them as have. But it's a beggarly business. I knowed two that used to ply - one at Putney and the other at Kew - and they used to wait on the people just before they got to the toll-place and beg of 'em to encourage watermen and let themselves be rowed over for the same as the toll, which was a penny. The Putney chap got a month for it. He was always hammer and tongs with the toll-gate keeper who laid a trap for him. He got a friend to come that way, and when the waterman just laid his hand on his arm and civilly asked him to patternise his boat, the passenger stormed out and swore he had been assaulted, and called the toll-gate keeper as a witness. He was always doing it, the toll-gate man swore, so they give the waterman twenty-eight days at Wan'ser, and he didn't ply at Putney no more. I know two or three who used to ply at Waterloo, when it was a penny to go over, and they were glad to row over that stretch o' water for the same. That'll show what our trade had come to even years ago. And there was one old man - near seventy he was - who'd got used to it, and wouldn't drop it, even when the bridge toll came down to a ha'penny. He kep it up till far into the winter. Well, one November day he was rowing three [-42-]  bricklayers over who know'd him and thought they would give him a turn, and when they got half way the old man he drops a oar.
    "'Hallo,' says one of the bricklayers, 'Hang me, if old Joe ain't dropped off to sleep.'
    "But it warn't that; he was dead. And when they held an inquest on him there was nothing in his inside, and no more fat about him that there is about that there boot-hook. There isn't any plying against the toll-bridge now; they're all free. Don't I think Thames waterman might do better if they roused up a bit and hit on something to make their craft to the pleasure seeking public? No; I don't sir. It's all over with us as far as carrying pleasuring people. They've forgot all about us, and even if they haven't, they've growed timid. Why, I recollect when girls and women thought no more of stepping into a boat than of entering a cab or a omnibus, but most of 'em now would as soon think of going up in a balloon. No, sir, it's no use denying it, as far as watermen is concerned all the cream is skimmed off the river by them blessed steamers, and we're left stuck in the mud, to drudge for a living as best we can."
    I was informed that there are about two thousand watermen who hold licences; though if you ask any of the fraternity the question the prevailing opinion seems to be that there are at least three times that number. This, however, may be accounted for by there being a great many who, in defiance of the Watermen's Protection Society, ply without licence. There are seventy landing stairs on the banks of the Thames, extending from Greenwich to Battersea, and the majority of these are stations for watermen. There are twenty of these stairs on the Middlesex shore between London Bridge and Horseferry, twenty-two on the Surrey side between London and Greenwich, and the remainder above bridge.
    But wherever one seeks and finds a Thames waterman, it is- considerable odds that he discovers. an individual whom Melancholy has marked for her own, dejected and downcast, and with but one burden to the story they all have to tell - what an excellent trade that of the waterman used to be at one time, and what a miserable living it is for a man at the present time. This, perhaps, may be in part accounted for by the fact that it is seldom any other than elderly men who are found in waiting at the various stairs. The younger ones are probably away on active and remunerative employment, other than small-boat rowing, leaving those who have lost, or at least negligently mislaid, all heart and hope lounging and dozing or smoking on the common seat waiting for a job, with the air of men who are not in the least anxious for the job's arrival, and would rather than not that it did not hurry itself on their account. The universal opinion naturally is that the steamboat is responsible for the decay and ruin of the water-men s trade, but here and there may be found men who lay the whole blame on Old London Bridge, or rather on the demolition of that venerable structure.
    "I've been on the Thames, sir," said an old waterman, "nigher fifty years than forty, and my father was a waterman, and so was his father, and his again, which carries it back for more than a hundred and twenty years since my great grandfather was bound to a master at Wapping. Trade was different on the Thames then? [-43-] Rather - it was the main road of London, in a manner of speakin', and nearly all the fetching and carrying was done on it. Why, in my great grandfather's time, sir, the lighters used to run from Woolwich to Westminster, loaded high up with stacks of cabbages and cauliflowers, just like you see the road wagons now taking 'em to Covent Garden Market. There were great market gardens all round about Woolwich and Plumstead in them times. Just the same way, the smaller craft used to bring loads of fruit from time orchards up Twickenham way. But that was long before my time. Do I remember any very great difference since the first time I was on the Thames? Course I do. I was prenticed the very year that Old London Bridge was pulled down. That was 1832. That was the ruin of Thames waterman, sir. If them as was able to do it had only laid their heads together and gone agin pullin' down the old bridge, we should have been still as flourishing as ever we were. How do I make that out? Well, well, you needn't say another word to make it known that you ain't much of a waterman. It is made out this way. The steamers could never have shot the bridge-passed through the arches, I mean. They might have done it for a few times, but one day one of 'em - of the then new inwented ones, I mean, with one paddle-wheel at her stain, like the old "Margery," the fust steamboat that ever plied on the Thames - would have come bust agin the piers and down she'd have gone, and that would have been a caution to the whole blessed breed of 'em, I fancy; and we would have been let alone to get a livin'. Do I recollect the old 'Margery?' No I don't; but I've heard my father tell of her. She was launched in 1818, and she run from Wapping to Gravesend at what was then the amazin' low rate of three shillings for the best part and half-a-crown for the fore cabin. Yes, she took very tidy; better after a bit than at first, when the people grew to have confidence that they wouldn't all be blown up in her. She took the shine out of the sailing packets, which in them days was the cheapest boats on the river - eighteen pence from the Dundee Arms, at Wapping, to Gravesend. Then, of course, you had to take your luck o' the wind and the fog and that. It was nothing uncommon for them to be all day long doing the voyage, and sometimes it would be a day and a night. The old 'Margery' used to do the trip - bar accidents - in five hours and a half. But I've heard my old dad say that she was never a week without getting into trouble; and when she was at anchor and blowing off her steam she'd blow off bilin' water as well, and lots of her passengers were scalded. She didn't answer only for one summer. One way and another it turned out to be a bad spec, and she was sold and broke up, and a year or so after another steamboat came out with a paddle-wheel on each side of her, and a lot of other improvements. The 'Old Thames' she was called, and she did very well at the old prices. Then come out a opposition boat, the 'Majestic,' and the prices was knocked down to the same as the sailing packets, and so they was ruined. Was there much opposition amongst the watermen against the first steamers? Not a bit of it. They got amoosement and profit out of 'em at one and the same time, so there wasn't no grounds for opposition. The wonderful [-44-] steamboat was a show as much as anything, and people would take boat at all points of the river to go and have a view of her and to see her start. It was never thought by the watermen they would last. They looked on steamers as a skyingtic experiment like what would have its day and be no more thought of. Course, when the 'Margery' came to grief they made sure their ideas had come true. Taking things as they were then the watermen would as soon they succeeded as not, for there were no piers to speak of, and every passenger had to take a small boat to carry him to the steamer; so, one way and another, them that journied by the new fangled way didn't find it so very cheap after all. What was the fare in my recollection from London Bridge to Greenwich by one of our boats? Five shillings a single sitter, seven and sixpence for two, or a party of four or five for a guinea there and back. There was plenty of work for watermen then, and plenty of money to be earned. A young fellow thought he'd done bad if he hadn't made ten shillings in the day all through the summer. There's many of us now that don't earn that much in a week. It is all drudgery work now. Three - or four times in the season, at regattas and such like, there'll be a call for small boats by them that call themselves pleasure parties - half-a-dozen in your boat at about ninepence a head, and out p'r'aps three or four hours with 'em. - There is some pleasurin' going on still above bridge at Putney, Richmond, and Kew, but you can't call 'em regular watermen that ply there. They've mostly got other trades to work at, and only go on the water in the busy months. What we at this end pick up is by rowing people across, poor people mostly, who can't afford to pay more than twopence or threepence. We get a few jobs, too, among the crews of the shipping in the Pool when they come ashore and want to get back again. But it's a sorry living at best. It ain't so bad for we old uns, to whom it don't so much matter so long as we can get a bit of bacca, and a crust and a cup o' tea for the old woman; but it must be mortal hard for them that have a lot of youngsters to feed.